Note: I recently watched Kahaani for a second time. I have no idea why I initially rated it 3.5 stars. This is about as good a movie can be.
With each film she makes, Vidya Balan reaffirms her status as India’s best actress (one of the best in the world, in fact). She does it again in Kahaani, a gripping thriller about identity.
Balan plays Vidya Bagchi, a heavily pregnant woman from London who arrives in Kolkata searching for her missing husband. Her husband, Arnab, had been in constant contact with Vidya for the first half of his month-long assignment, but she’s heard nothing from him in two weeks.
When Vidya files a missing persons report at the local police station, the head inspector repeatedly pronounces her name “Bidya,” insisting that “b” and “v” are interchangeable in Kolkata. Adding further confusion, a junior inspector, Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee), explains that everyone in Kolkata has two names: a “pet name” and an official name. Rana is the pet name that everyone uses; his official name is Satyoki.
The guest house and office where Arnab was supposed to have stayed and worked while in Kolkata have no record of his having been there. Vidya gets a lead when the head of human resources at the office says that Arnab’s photo bears an uncanny resemblance to a former employee named Milan Damji, a suspected terrorist who’s been on the run for two years. Is Arnab’s disappearance a case of mistaken identity, or could he and Milan Damji be the same man?
Kahaani is wonderfully atmospheric in the way it emphasizes the impossible task before Vidya. The city is crowded and unfamiliar to Vidya, who staggers in the heat under the weight of her pregnant belly. Kolkata is at its most chaotic during a climactic scene set during Durga Puja, a festival celebrating the Hindu goddess Durga, a renowned demon-slayer who also embodies maternal compassion and patience.
Vidya is aided throughout by Rana, and their rapport is central to the movie’s success. Rana develops a crush on Vidya, feelings which are doomed to amount to nothing. If he succeeds in helping her find Arnab, she’ll leave, reunited with the father of her unborn child. If he fails her, she’ll be heartbroken.
Vidya is perhaps more playful with Rana than she should be. But, as pointed out by Intelligence Bureau Officer Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a pregnant woman is no threat to anyone.
Balan and Chatterjee are both spectacular. Balan makes Vidya tenacious within the physical limitations of her pregnancy. Chatterjee tinges the lighter moments Rana shares with Vidya with a longing for a love that can never be.
One of the villains deserves a special mention: Bob (Saswata Chatterjeeas). He’s a paunchy, balding, middle-aged guy in glasses that you’d take no notice of if you saw him on the street, but it’s a bad omen whenever he shows up on screen in Kahaani. His very ordinariness makes him a chilling presence.
The plot is well-paced, allowing enough time for character development and tense action scenes. The cinematography gives scenes a grainy, yellowish tinge, as though a smoggy cloud obscures Vidya’s search through the bustling city. Kahaani is an accomplished thriller that doesn’t disappoint.
*Some theaters list Kahaani‘s runtime as 2 hrs. 30 min. It’s closer to 2 hours long.